The Testing of Abraham – Genesis 22

Faith in God is not always easy, even in the best of life’s circumstances.  Sometimes we face trials or hardships that challenge us to the point of requiring more than basic faith to get by.  At other times, God may ask us to do something troublesome or difficult that we do not understand the reason for at all.

In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus told his followers, “I am the bread of life.”  This was easy enough, as he had miraculously fed over 5,000 people from five loaves and two fish the day before.  However, Jesus went on to say that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, or we will have not life in us.  With the benefit of hindsight, we know that he was talking about Holy Communion, believing in his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, and how we remember this loving sacrifice for our sins every time we partake.  But those around Jesus at the time did not have the benefit of this context.  When they could not understand what he was saying, many chose to leave Him.

Another example of difficult faith is found in Exodus 14, when God freed the Israelites from Egypt but then led them to the edge of the Red Sea, where they were trapped by Pharaoh’s army of chariots.  As the Israelites faced certain death, they could not have known that the reason God led them here was to show them His glory firsthand by parting the Red Sea and delivering them safely through it.  They would be able to look back on that deliverance and remember to turn to God every time they were under a challenge or a threat.

Perhaps the most difficult example of faith is found in Genesis 22.  Abraham had no context in which to understand why God was asking him to do a nearly impossible thing, nor did he have any idea how important his obedience would be to God.  He couldn’t have.  But Abraham was to be faced with an extremely difficult decision to either move forward in obedience, or to turn away, leaving God.

22 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”   Genesis 22:1-2 ESV

Impossible! Unthinkable! That is the reaction these two lines bring to everyone.  What could God possibly be asking here?  Isn’t God loving?  Isn’t God reasonable?  After waiting twenty-five years for their promised, cherished son Isaac, born to Sarah and Abraham beyond childbearing years, foretold as the father of so many, they could not even be counted, now the Lord wants him to be sacrificed as a burnt offering?  Absolutely unthinkable! 

What possible reason could the Lord have for ordering this?  Is this some mad idea of a test?  (Spoiler alert: God stops him before Abraham goes through with it).

Before we totally give up on God’s sanity, there are two clues in these verses.  The first is “mountain I will show you in the land of Moriah.”  The second is “burnt offering.”

Mt Moriah is where the Lord will direct the temple of God to be built many centuries after Abraham.  It is also where God’s only begotten, cherished son, Jesus, will be crucified as an offering for the sins of the world.  It is a very holy place, set apart for God.  It is also, in our future, where the New Jerusalem will serve as the eternal earthly throne of Jesus Christ, ruler of the entire world, as described in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation.

The second clue in God’s command to Abraham is the phrase “burnt offering.”  A burnt offering in the Old Testament was where one life (an innocent animal) was sacrificed and burned to bear the judgement and punishment for the sins of another, man.  In God’s holy creation, there must be a penalty paid for all sin or disobedience to God and his law.  And the penalty for sin is death.  Without the shedding of blood, there is no remedy or removal of sin (Hebrews 9:22).  The wages of sin is death, and the wages must be paid for one to be declared holy or set apart before God (Romans 6:23).

Initially, innocent animals were sacrificed to temporarily cover the sins of man, but ultimately, God Himself provided the sacrifice to suffer, to die and to pay the penalty for our sins.  In effect, God is not asking Abraham to do anything that God will not do in the future.  The difference is, God stopped Abraham, whereas Jesus went through with it for us.

God is a loving God, and he is asking Abraham to be willing to share in the pain that God will experience Himself when Jesus is beaten and crucified.  And without knowing the reason or result, Abraham exhibited an extraordinary willingness to obey God under this most extreme and mysterious of circumstances.  It was a magnificent demonstration of faith and faithfulness, second only to that exhibited by Jesus Christ when he surrendered Himself to the cross.

3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So, they went both together.7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So, they went both together.  Genesis 22:3-8 ESV

It has been noted that for the three days of the journey, Isaac was as good as dead in Abraham’s grieving mind.  This parallels with Jesus being in the tomb until he was raised on the third day.  This span of time also presented Abraham many opportunities to change his mind, waking up each morning to a new, horrible reality he faced.  And yet, each day, he marched on in obedience to the Lord.  How challenging an existence, yet what faith he demonstrated!

During these three days, Isaac is apparently unaware of what is about to happen, and his innocence must have added to the burden Abraham felt in his heart.  In like manner, how God the Father must have been deeply troubled as the totally innocent Jesus voluntarily went to his suffering and crucifixion for our eternal well-being and salvation.  The love of God for us exceeded both of their suffering and grief.  The obedience of Abraham may even have served as an emotional support for them Jesus faced the cross because of his love for us.  

9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  Genesis 22:9-13 ESV

The ram was substituted as an offering for Isaac just as Jesus was substituted as an offering for us.

14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:14 ESV

Jesus provided his sacrifice by being crucified for us on Mount Moriah, the mount of the Lord, on the north side of the temple.

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”  Genesis 22:15-18 ESV

God’s testing of Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, is a most challenging chapter of the Bible to comprehend.   The Lord was testing Abraham’s willingness to obey under the most extreme of circumstances.  And God himself would later provide the sacrifice of Jesus on this very mountain.

This “blessing of all nations” happens in the context of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.  Abraham, the first person named in the genealogy, was asked to offer up his precious son, exactly as God the Father willingly did with Jesus Christ over two thousand years later.  Jesus, the fulfillment of the genealogy, obediently went to the cross as a sacrifice for you and me, a fulfillment of the punishment that our sins demand in the holy accounting of God and his creation.  

When we see a loved one suffering, we would give anything to take the pain off them and put it on ourselves. This is what the Father experienced with Jesus at the cross, and why Jesus went all the way through with what He did for us.  The wages we earned from our sin is death, so Jesus paid the penalty that we may experience eternal life with Him.  The symbolism of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his only son is made all the stronger as this took place on Mount Moriah, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

“Because you have done this…in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”  Genesis 22:16, 18 ESV

Abraham’s demonstration of faith was clearly very important to God, the loving Father of his only begotten son, Jesus.  Because Abraham obeyed, all the nations indeed will be blessed through the fruit of his lineage, Jesus Christ.

Reflection:

What is one of the hardest things God has ever asked you to do? How did you bear up under it?

Do you currently have a loved one in a difficult situation, one that you would willingly take their place in?

Why do you think Abraham’s obedience in this extreme situation was so important to God?  What does the Father’s and Jesus’ willingness to go through this say about God’s love for you? 

We experience complete forgiveness when we come to the cross.  Instead of punishment or rejection, we come under the eternal care of a God who loves us.  Despite many failings in his own life, Abraham is known as a man of faith.  His greatest moment of coming to Mount Moriah in faith in the most difficult of circumstances was, in a sense, his coming to the cross.  Take a moment to reflect on, share or even experience the first time of your “coming to the cross”.

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